The watches both owned and coveted by famous people interest me, as they do most people who would call themselves timepiece enthusiasts. In the last 15 or so years, luxury industry marketers have been a bit “too involved” in the game of what celebrities are wearing what timepieces as well as other fashion items. That’s a bit of a shame because at the end of the day that has probably done more harm than good to consumers being authentically influenced by the public figures they follow. So, with that in mind, let’s flash back to the year 1999, when in February of that year, watch retailer Tourneau and watch auction house Antiquorum held a special event in New York City called “Famous Faces, Watch Auction For Charity.” This event was easily one of the most interesting watch-related auctions ever held, and nothing like it will ever happen again.
I learned about this watch auction from someone who was there, Mr. Tom Flynn, who wrote the herein pictured news article for the Antiques Trade Gazette in the UK after his experience. Clearly, the headline of the article is timely given that Donald Trump is the President-Elect here in the United States. I’m not going to make this article political, and I don’t have any political motivations behind it. My only interest is in discussing the event in the context of watch auctions and a bit of history in an industry that I am a part of. There is also the interesting fact that Ronald Reagan wore this watch (at least at times) and that in 1999 Donald Trump bid for it and won it at auction.
To learn more about the event, I interviewed Andrew Block, who was running Tourneau back in 1999 and who helped produce the event. He recalls the event fondly, even though it was a ton of work to produce. It was a combined effort not only of his team at Tourneau, but also of the auctioneer Antiquorum. The TimeMachine venue was located right next to the Trump building in New York. Block remarked that he didn’t work with the Trump people much in the sense that they were not typically buying watches. I’ve been trying to determine whether or not Donald Trump is a “watch guy.” I am pretty sure he isn’t – not in the sense the typical aBlogtoWatch audience member is.
The wrist watch world back in 1999 was quite different than it is today. The late 1990s – as far as I can recall, as I was in high school – was both economically optimistic and prior to the development of the watch industry’s modern coming of age. This was before the first tech industry bubble in the early 2000s, and also before many of today’s major watch brands were gobbled up by big corporate parents. It was also a time when wrist watch values were markedly less than they are today. In fact, one of the major things that happened in the watch industry from the very late 1990s until about 2015 was a dramatic increase in retail prices. It was also prior to the recent vintage watch craze which saw the value of some rare vintage watches skyrocket thanks to some clever auctioneers and enthused collectors who often hailed from East Asia.
One of the auctioneers for Antiquorum at the time, and taking the helm at the 1999 auction, was Mr. Osvaldo Patrizzi, whose career was as controversial as it was colorful. In the mid-2000s, Antiquorum started having legal issues and later ousted Patrizzi. The latter attempted to form his own auction house dedicated to watches, but ultimately failed. Many cited the fact that his Patrizzi & Co. business was not sufficiently able to implement online bidding which they banked on as a primary technique to attract clients.
That is quite ironic because the auction event of February 1999 which I am referring to was touted as being the first live auction event to include bidding from participants on the internet. Apparently, the idea did work, but not perfectly. People who attended the event report that the evening went extremely slowly given the wait for online bidders to respond, and it seemed to take forever to get through the 87 lots. The auction catalog itself starts with various instructions on how to bid online, which is sort of amusing since today we would not assume that the instructions for how to use a website would be in print form.
While watch auction technology and overall business savvy has arguably been refined since the late 1990s, the crowd and public attention they are able to gather has perhaps not gotten better. I’ve never been too quiet on my less than enthusiastic sentiments on much of the activity of the modern watch auction business which I feel has done less to democratize sales, and has done more to misinform collectors and inflate prices. I wrote more of my thoughts on watch auctions here. Looking at the results of the 1999 Famous Faces auction, the entire event yielded $544,200 – which is just over $6,200 per watch on average. Which actually sounds very reasonable given the clever theme of the event.
The idea behind the Famous Faces watch auction was pretty neat. Take a bunch of celebrities, ask them to donate a watch, and the have other celebrities bid on those watches. The proceeds of the sales would go to a charity that the donating person actually got to choose. The notion was a joint effort of watch retailer chain Tourneau and Anitquorum. This was a golden time for Tourneau, well in advance of their current and severe issues. In 1997, Tourneau opened their flagship “TimeMachine” store in New York City, and were riding high near the top of their game as a company. The 1999 event would be held at the store, basically between it and the Trump building.
The watches were each donated by celebrities, but not all were their own watches. Looking in the auction catalog it takes a keen eye to determine what timepieces actually represented the taste of the donating people, and which were given to them by brands specifically to be auctioned off. For example, the description in the catalog would say “Donated by X person” when it was their own personal watch, and “Donated by X person and X brand,” when it was a collaboration between the two. Block recalls that about half of the 87 watches were actually representative of the celebrity’s own tastes. Even with those numbers, nothing like this event has taken place since, as the majority of celebrity/brand relationships – especially when it comes to watches – are the result of marketing or endorsement relationships.
Prior to the February 1999 auction, Antiquorum toured the world with the 87 watches, in a practice that is often continued today with “major auction events.” The idea was to show off the timepieces to bidders they hoped would be participating in the event from afar. Here is the actual press release Tourneau issued at the time:
NEW YORK, Feb. 18 /PRNewswire/ — Tourneau, America’s leading watch retailer, and Antiquorum, the world’s leading watch auctioneer, are pleased to announce the “Famous Faces Watch Auction for Charity,” which will be held on Wednesday, February 24, 1999 at the Tourneau TimeMachine. The “Famous Faces Watch Auction for Charity” will sell more than 75 timepieces to the highest bidders and 100% of the proceeds will go to a charity personally selected by each donor.
Some of the world’s most recognizable celebrities, such as George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Elton John, Madonna, Mark McGwire, Paul Newman, Rosie O’Donnell, Ronald Reagan, Robert Redford, Christopher Reeve, Jerry Seinfeld, Darryl Strawberry, Elizabeth Taylor, Cindy Crawford, Joe Torre and Oprah Winfrey, have donated their own personal timepieces, to be auctioned off for numerous charities worldwide. The timepieces range from classical to the unusual — by Audemars Piguet, Breguet, Breitling, Cartier, Chopard, Franck Muller, Omega, Rolex and Vacheron Constantine to name a few.
Organizations benefiting from the auction include World Health Organization, Salvation Army, Special Olympics, Association for the Blind, Children of Chernobyl, The Leukemia Society, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
This auction will provide a first time opportunity for buyers all over the world to acquire a piece of contemporary history while simultaneously supporting many worthwhile causes.
Tourneau and Antiquorum will tour the world with this collection prior to its sale. The collection will travel to Geneva, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Tourneau locations in California, Florida and Texas before arriving at the Tourneau TimeMachine in New York for the auction. A full-color commemorative auction catalog ($50.00) including photographs and biographical sketches of the
celebrities, a photograph of the watch and a precis on the benefiting charity will be available mid-January.
As I noted, I was actually able to find one of the “Famous Faces, Watch Auction For Charity” catalogs and purchased it. Almost 20 years later, and it cost a lot less than the $50 asked at the time for it – well worth the effort of buying it since the catalog is quite amazing as a time capsule. Some people are content with just getting auction catalogs and never bidding, which many people know are typically the result of enormous effort and production. Big names showed up for the 1999 event which comprised business and entertainment industry elites from New York City and elsewhere.
The guest host was Dr. Ruth Westheimer (Dr. Ruth) – the outspoken sex therapist who was popular at the time. A decade earlier, she was at Donald Trump’s release for his book “Trump: The Art Of The Deal” in 1988. According to Flynn’s report of the event, the atmosphere was light. Dr. Ruth herself donated a watch to be sold, and apparently announced in the context of her watch that was up for sale, “whoever bids $10,000 dollars is going to have 10,000 orgasms.” Block confirms that Dr. Ruth’s participation was a highlight of the night.
When bidding of her watch only reached $7,000 Dr. Ruth continued to flirt with the audience, and even referenced Mr. Trump directly who reportedly smiled in response (see Flynn’s article for more details). Though, in the end, Trump passed on her watch, having a different acquisition in mind that evening. At the time, Donald Trump was a regular at high-profile New York City social events. Even though his actual political experience is only now beginning, statements by Trump going back to the 1980s more than hint at his political ambitions. The watch he was interested in that evening was one owned by former US President Ronald Reagan.